Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny is something of a rarity among longtime antagonists of Vladimir Putin. That’s because he’s still alive, unlike so many other Kremlin critics who’ve met untimely ends via poisoning, suspicious heart attacks, and sudden falls from tall buildings. And it’s not for want of trying, either, as is made so terrifyingly clear in the CNN Films and HBO Max documentary Navalny — for me, one of the most important and must-watch streaming releases of the year.
Navalny, the man, made international headlines again this week by revealing via social media that authorities at the high-security penal colony near Moscow where he’s currently jailed threw him into a special isolation cell for five days. His offense was walking without his hands behind his back, in violation of prison rules.
The HBO Max documentary about his story — which also, inadvertently, doubles as a kind of prequel to the ongoing war in Ukraine — explains how he got there in the first place.
Navalny documentary on HBO Max
Before debuting on HBO’s streaming service, Navalny got a two-night screening earlier this year in select theaters around the US. The movie floored me so much on the first night, that I did something I’d never done before. I went back to the same theater, to see the same movie, the very next night. Needless to say, I couldn’t be more pleased that it has a streaming home, on HBO Max.
As for what audiences can expect: Shadowed by filmmaker Daniel Roher, viewers are introduced to Navalny as a devoted husband and father, and a charismatic political figure with piercing blue eyes and a massive following online. In the opening moments of the documentary, Navalny is talking straight to the camera. At that point in the story, as it becomes clear later, the Kremlin had already tried to kill him via the deadly nerve agent Novichok.
After an ordeal in a Russian hospital, his family spirits him out of the country, where he recuperates in Germany’s Black Forest. The attempted poisoning happened in August of 2020. Roher caught up with Navalny a few months later.
Soon enough, though, this film about one man becomes something much more. For one thing, people are not supposed to survive Novichok poisoning. As soon as he’s recovered, never mind how improbably, Navalny also does something that no doubt seals his fate — even as it turns the documentary into something along the lines of a John le Carre thriller.
“We don’t realize how strong we actually are”
Navalny linked up with the independent journalism outfit Bellingcat to research, identify, and then prank call — right there on the screen, as the documentary camera was rolling — the shadowy Russian hitmen who tried to assassinate him. He even goes so far as to coordinate with international press outlets like CNN to name and shame them all.
Embarrassing Putin-linked goons, of course, is not generally a healthy or risk-free thing to do in Russia. And in Russia, unfortunately, is where the documentary ends. With Navalny deciding, for better or worse, that he can’t be an effective opposition leader living in comfort in Europe, while his supporters live an altogether different life in Russia. So, he gets on a plane to go back home.
He’s grabbed before he even makes it through passport control.
There’s a glimpse, near the end, of Navalny in a courtroom, facing the trumped-up charges against him. He forms his hands into the shape of a heart, smiling at his wife. “Listen, I’ve got something very obvious to tell you,” Navalny says at the end of the documentary, directly to viewers.
“You’re not allowed to give up. If they decide to kill me, it means that we are incredibly strong. We need to utilize this power, to not give up. To remember we are a huge power that is being oppressed by these bad dudes. We don’t realize how strong we actually are.”
More HBO Max coverage: Want to know what’s streaming on HBO Max now? Be sure to check out the list of new releases on HBO Max for August.